In part one, we presented some of KPop's important artists and a peek at some of the ways KPop is presented and absorbed: music video, live television, dance practice and performance videos, radio, even game shows, etc. But we didn't even scratch the surface. If you made it this far, having absorbed all of part one, we'll introduce some essentials, some personal favorites, and some of the unusual aspects of KPop culture that you won't find anywhere else.
To really give a good representation of the KPop Experience, it takes a little bit more than just a list of videos, "essential" or not. This list is intended to give anyone not familiar with the South Korean pop music scene a more well-rounded look some of the things that make it the modern entertainment phenomenon that it is.
This list is very subjective, though, and not to be considered a "best of" list or a "top" list, rather a list of some of the things we've enjoyed about the genre.
EXO - "Monster" Dance Practice Video
And we'll start off with something shiny and new and particularly Korean. Korean Pop is a highly visual experience, more than just a song to hum along with. Every hit single has its own unique choreography which means that KPop stars, known as "idols", need to have great moves along with great pipes. The "dance practice" video is a treat for fans of a particular group or song that involves a single camera, usually stationary, and the group performing their dance usually in one long shot without any cuts. This is not only a great example of the "dance practice video" but also a look at one of South Korea's state-of-the-art boy bands, Exo:
Their moves are so precise and well-syncronized but at the same time flow naturally, with each performer getting opportunities to add his own personality. And they sing well, too. Exo is in a seemingly daily competition for young hearts with a sparkly kaliedoscope of boy bands in their prime, GOT7, BTS, iKon, Winner, to name the most prominent.
Red Velvet - "Dumb Dumb"/"Automatic"
Another recent SM Entertainment creation, this cherubic quintet, led by the Canadian Wendy Shon, has a sort of Jeckle and Hyde repertoire: wildly colorful and quirky upbeat pure pop on one side and smokey, sultry jazz-flavored chill on the other. Here's both:
The five of them driving in a car seems to be a recurring theme in Red Velvet videos. By the way, the video for "Dumb Dumb" was listed in Rolling Stone's top ten videos of 2015 at #9. Missy Elliott's "WTF (Where They From)" was #1. So there's that...
Orange Caramel - "Catallena"
One striking thing about KPop is the number of members of some of the girl groups and boy bands, as we saw above with Exo. KPop groups commonly have eight or nine members, and as many as 12 or 13. As a larger group attains a certain level of success, they often spawn "subunits" and our next video is an example of a subunit whose notoriety may have surpassed its original group. Orange Caramel is a trio made up of three notable members of the fiercely seductive and ever-changing group After School. Their look and sound is unique, comical and striking, featuring garish "candy culture" costumes and a grinding, weezing musical engine of Asian themes combined with glistening synthpop. Their brilliantly controversial final masterpiece, "Catallena" is based on a Punjabi folk song. While not for everyone, Lizzy, Nana and Raina may be one of KPop's most satisfying acquired tastes:
In a 2015 Rolling Stones "Girl's Group Week" reader's poll, our loveable suffocating mermaids Nana, Lizzy and Raina won Most Underrated Girl Group, beating out the Russian 2nd place finishers t.AT.u by a wide margin. Unfortunately, for mysterious reasons, they haven't released anything since "Catallena." Hopefully, it's not their swan song.
Mamamoo - "Piano Man" - Live on KBS Cool FM 89.1
Thanks to YouTube and cheap cameras, you can watch performers all over the world promoting their songs on the radio and South Korea is no different. Here we catch the retro-styled R&B girl group Mamamoo singing karaoke-style to their 2014 single "Piano Man." Mamamoo was almost universally dubbed the "monster rookies" because of their considerable vocal gifts and their energetic, playful charm, despite their relative inexperience and youth. Here you can see that at work as they perform live on the radio, in their street clothes, every bit as compelling and entertaining to watch as they are on stage.
Mamamoo has a knack for taking a song and building it to a frenzy of harmonies, dual leads and solo ad-libs, usually popping out of one of rapper MoonByul's tension-and-release rap breaks. When this was recorded, the quartet was still a trendy cult favorite. Today, since the release of their first full-length album "Melting." they are one of the top acts in South Korea, with pockets of die-hard fans (called "Moomoos") from Caracas to Cape Cod.
Girls' Generation - "Catch Me If You Can" - Music Core Comeback Stage
KPop, with its focus on appearance, fashion, and choreography is probably the first musical genre that is made for television. A KPop group can show up on the set of any variety show and with a little bit of stage, dance and sing to a canned karaoke background track. And South Korean television is completely saturated with live music-related programs, more often than not competitions of some sort or another. Each of the main networks in Seoul has its own "showcase" chart-based music show, in which the group with the top single gets a prize at the end. This is something you would never, ever see in a America, and is a huge part of the KPop experience and its sustenance. Imagine if you could watch your favorite pop stars, Rhianna, Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Beiber, etc., performing live on your television four to five times a week. One important part of the music show is the "comeback stage." In the west, a "comeback" usually means a performer that has clawed themselves back from some fallow period, a re-reversal of fortune, so to speak. In KPop, a "comeback" is simply a new release by an established artist. Perhaps no comeback was more eagerly anticipated than that of Girls' Generation's, "Catch Me If You Can," the iconic girl group's first release since their controversial dumping of the popular American member Jessica Jung. And drawing on the split-second syncopation and magnetic charisma that made them known as South Korea's "national girl group," they knocked it out of the park for an adoring national audience on live TV. Behold:
The USA has its bald eagle, Russia its bear, Japan its rising sun, and South Korea has... Girl's Generation.
Super Junior - "Sorry Sorry"
Before Girls' Generation became a national institution, the waters for a large vocal/dance group were tested by SM Entertainments visionary CEO Lee Soo-Man with the recruitment, incubation and formation of their brother group, Super Junior. Both of our previously introduced large groups, Exo and Girls' Generation (or SNSD), owe a large part of their success to the door blown open by this 13-member tour-de-force. Here's the Michael Jackson-esque song that made them famous:
One of the compelling aspects of "Sorry Sorry" is how it emphasizes the best aesthetic qualities of the Korean language itself. The staccato, almost percussive vocal track, highlighted with dashes of highly accented English, is a major part of its appeal. One of the most underestimated qualities of Korean music in general is the beauty of the language itself and how it lends itself so naturally to song and rap alike.
Wonder Girls - "Like This"
While we're on the subject of KPop classics (like "Sorry Sorry"), let's hand it off to one of the songs from my personal "Why I Love KPop" list, a list of songs that answer the question "What's so great about KPop?" with no explanation needed. And what's not to like about this explosion of musical joy on an unsuspecting ourdoor shopping mall?
The Wonder Girls are the creation of the third of the "Big Three" entertainment companies in Seoul, JYP. If any group from South Korea (not named Girls' Generation) deserves the adjective "legendary," it would be the Wonder Girls, who started out as a five piece dance-group (as seen above) and are now a four-piece band who play many of the instruments on their most recent releases, including their current smash hit, reggae anthem, and KP Oppa Song of the Summer "Why So Lonely?" I can't think of any other musical group that can say that.
Big Bang - "Bad Boy"
Another legendary KPop group is our first entry from the second of the "Big Three," YG Entertainment. YG and the biggest of the Big Three, SM, are kind of the "Beatles vs. Stones" of the Korean Pop Corporate world. SM groups are created and groomed to fill a particular style that the company and Lee Soo-Man want to present. In other words, the company creates the concept and then performers are recruited and trained to bring the concept to fruition. This is generally the model that many Korean companies follow; the reverse of the American model and its reliance on A&R executives beating the bushes ready-made acts dying for fame. YG, on the other hand, allows much more artistic freedom, grooming artists that have their own musical creativity and allowing that to blossom. One humongous example of this is PSY of "Gangnam Style" fame, a YG artist who was already an established act before signing with the company. One fantastic example of that is Big Bang, one of the few "boy bands" to actually write and produce much of their own music, mostly by their leader G-Dragon, a leading rap artist and innovator in his own right, and who occupies the same space in the public imagination that Kayne West does in America. Immediately, you can see how their looser, more urban style differs from the SM acts we've already seen.
I love the orchestral synths. And T.O.P., the oddly dressed, blue-haired character. Each member of Big Bang is a superstar in his own right. Big Bang's biggest hit "Fantastic Baby" is the most watched video on YouTube by a Korean vocal group, male or female.
Akdong Musician - "200%" - SBS "KPop Star"
While South Korea has competitive music shows featuring established artist (many more examples to come), they also have their own amatuer competitions, like "American Idol." "Superstar K", in fact, was one of the first Korean programs I ever saw, and I was instantly taken with it. "KPop Star" was TV talent competition with a little bit of "Shark Tank" thrown in: the winner would be able to choose from contract offers presented by the three judges, each of whom represented one of the Big Three, including JYP (Park Jin-young) and YG (Yang Hyun-suk or "Yang Goon") themselves. In season two, an unlikely brother and sister act who entered the contest from Mongolia took the country by storm, won the competition and eventually signed with YG, which guaranteed them a great deal of artistic freedom. Akdong Musician is the combination of songwriter/singer/dancer Lee Chanhyuk and his kid sister Lee Suhyun, whose unusually dulcid voice is infectious. Here, along with the YG dancers (who have their own fans), they make their triumphant return to the show that launched their stardom to perform their world-wide hit single, 200%:
Fun for the whole family. Chanhyuk and Suhyun occupy a unique place in Korean Pop as one of the few, if any, family acts to continually chart great songs. This spring, after the release of their second album "Spring" Chanhyuk surprised everyone by announcing that he will be enlisting in the military and urged YG to make sure that his sister was allowed to create a solo album.
Jinusean with Sandara Park - "Tell Me" at YGCon
While we're on a YG theme, let's throw in a real classic from genesis of KPop. Music companies are often compared to families, and although they are mercenary money-making machines, to the performers, who are separated from family members, train, work, live and sleep in dorms with other performers, they very much are like their family. Not only among the members of their own group, but throughout the company, older performers and groups become sunbae to their younger hoobae. And when a company gets large enough, they often take the family on a road trip, with a revue concert featuring many of their top acts. SM has their SM Town, JYP its JYP Nation, and the following gem is from YG's YGCon, featuring one of KPop's first popular artists Jinusean, here performing with the adorable and always fashionable Sandara Park (or just Dara) from YG's 'badgirl' girl group 2NE1:
Jinusean made a long awaited follow-up to "Tell Me" in 2015, the irresistable "Tell Me One More Time." If you like what you just saw above, then Google that one.
IU - "23"
KPop is not all girl groups and boy bands (and the odd duo acts like above). In fact, some of the most competent vocalists coming out of Seoul are solo artists, and perhaps that is as it should be because in order to star on your own, you have to have the pipes to do it. And like most musical artists that come from Korea, they're mononymous, like great Brazilian soccer players. Some of the great Korean vocalists include the "Queen of Korean Pop," Kwon BoA, better known as just BoA; New Jersey's own Amy Lee, better known as Ailee; Kim Hyung-Soo, better known as K.Will; Atlanta's own teen heartthrob Eric Nam (Nam Yoon-Do); and the "Nation's Little Sister," IU. IU, born Lee Ji-eun, started her career as a cherubic 15-year-old girl-next-door singer/songwriter, and had a string of hits. In 2016, she turned 23, and cranked out perhaps her best work to date, the controversial minialbum "Chatshire" and its single "23," a bitingly honest commentary about being stuck between the expectations of youth and adulthood.
Full disclosure: This is one of my favorite songs. Period. In any language. Check out the lyrics, if you like.
f(x) - "4 Walls"
The more you get to know Korean Pop, the more you realize just how special f(x) is. You can read my profile about them here. f(x) is a multinational quartet made up of four very distinctive voices and personalities: San Francisco-born Korean-American hipster Krystal Jung; L.A. native Chinese-American tomboy Amber Liu; diminutive Korean lead singer Luna (Park Sun Young); and their leader, a former ballerina from Beijing, Victoria Song (Qien Song). Together, with the help of a top-notch circle of songwriters like Kenzie and LDN Noise, they've cranked out some of the most interesting music South Korea has to offer. After losing their fifth member and "visual" Sulli (Choi Jin-ri) after she gave up the band for love (and Instagram notoriety), the four, once rumored to be finished, rolled out one of the most sophisticated collection of electronica that you'll hear anywhere, "4 Walls." Here's the title track and its somewhat impenetrable video, a tribute to the butterfly effect:
Still deciphering that one myself. But I love the song, and so did the rest of East Asia.
Crayon Pop - "Bing Bing" - Live on MBC's "Show Champion"
Time for another legendary television performance, this time by KPop's anti-idols, Crayon Pop. Crayon Pop, one of the most unique groups in KPop history, go out of their way not to buy into or pander to much of KPop's obsession with beauty, sexiness, or titilation and they've paid a price for it, at one point being rejected by all of the music shows despite a growing and rabid fanbase of multiple demographics. They've also been rewarded, having been invited to open for Lady Gaga (a fellow fan of Asian pop) on her Art Pop North American tour, and they were the second Korean girl group after f(x) to be invited to SXSW. You can read about why they matter here. This performance on MBC's chart show "Music Champion" closely follows their exclusion and subsequent "guerrilla" period, and their attitude is palpable, barely bothering to even take their hands out of their pockets, giving the camera the eye-on-you sign, and adding karate kicks to their choreography. And the break... well... watch for yourself.
When they end, they all slap the floor and shout "빠세!", or bahsae, which basically means, "Hell, yeah!" I agree. The next year, 2014, Crayon Pop would be hauling in award after award for their iconic viral hit, "Bar Bar Bar," and touring with Lady Gaga. But if you ask many "Yong Pop" fans, "Bing Bing" will always be their favorite song.
Block B - "Her" Dance Practice Video
I promise to someday create a video playlist of the best dance practice videos. One you've already seen, and here's another. This is Block B, a group famous for being Zico's boy band. Zico is one of the trendiest artists on the scene, as a rapper, singer, producer and composer. Here, he's the rapping cow in this hilarious version of a truly great song:
While we're on the subject of Zico....
Zico - "I Am You You Are Me"
This is one of the many tracks that have made Zico a popular solo artist. This piece really transcends KPop and is more of a sweet R&B tune with a shimmering trip hop arrangement. Check it:
Zico is a frequent collaborator with artists from across the Korean music landscape and there is a growing list of growing list of artists in the rock, soul, R&B, and EDM genre that don't fit the KPop formula. Time for a look.
Four Korean Non-KPop Tunes
Here's a sampling of some of the great music coming out of South Korea that is sometimes refered to as K-Indie. I could and should do a broader list, but for now, here's Hyukoh, Suran, The Black Skirts, and one of the first great Korean acid jazz groups, Clazziquoi Project.
Wow, you're still here. Okay then... This, obviously, is the tip of an iceberg, so to speak. And we come to part one of our tour of Korean Pop Culture. In the next segment, we'll catch up on some more of KPop's more important acts, talk more about the importance of rap in KPop and Korean music, and show even more gems from the myriand of Korean music-related television programs.